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Environment

Cloned horse could secure future for endangered species

World’s First Successfully Cloned Endangered Przewalski’s Horse
Ken Bohn
/
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
Kurt—the world’s first successfully cloned Przewalski’s horse—is thriving at his home at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and learning the language of being a wild horse from Holly, a young female of his own species on Sep. 15, 2022.

A cloned horse that could be an important key to reviving an endangered species went on public display at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park recently.

The Przewalski’s horse is a small, stocky species with a zebra-like mane and no forelock.

There is a small, captive herd at the Safari Park, and there is hope that the cloned animal, known as Kurt, will one day breed with the mares there.

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“We plan to have Kurt produce many offspring here,” said Oliver Ryder, the director of Conservation Genetics at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “We are considering also producing more copies of Kurt because he’s so valuable. And it’s possible that eventually Kurt would go to another institution. To allow the establishment of this lost genetic variation.”

Kurt was born in the summer of 2020 at animal cloning company ViaGen’s facility in Texas. He just recently arrived in San Diego.

The animal’s DNA was frozen more than 40 years ago and preserved in the San Diego Zoo's Frozen Zoo, a repository of cell samples from thousands of animals.

The Przewalski’s horse population went extinct in the wild and was saved because of a coordinated breeding program of the captive population.

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Reintroduction programs in Asia mean the horse is again living in the wild, but the captive breeding program has also cost the species some genetic diversity, which is a crucial element for long-term survival.

Kurt could change that because his genes are no longer represented in the species.

“We are restoring genetic variation,” Ryder said. “Turning back the clock or reversing the process of the loss of genetic variation.”

But before that can happen, researchers have to teach Kurt how to be a Przewalski’s horse.

They started by introducing him to a young female, Holly, at the Safari Park.

Their secluded habitat is close to an enclosure holding a small herd of Przewalski’s horses.

“They get the chance to see this larger horse herd up on the hill above their habitat,” said Gavin Livingstone, curator of mammals at San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “And so they can communicate and vocalize back and forth and to continue spreading those behaviors and teaching Kurt all these necessary and important horse skills.”

There is hope that Kurt will one day become the primary stallion for the local herd, adding his genetic signature to the larger population. Right now, he is learning to be a wild horse.

“It’s important that he have the natural social skills of a because he needs those to be a productive member of Przewalski’s horse society,” Livingstone said.

The horse is named after Kurt Benirschke, a key proponent for the creation of the San Diego Zoo’s conservation efforts and the frozen zoo. Benirschke died in 2018.

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